Senior College Football Columnist

Power Poll: Notre Dame's ascendancy not luck, three years in making

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Kelly could be the fifth coach to win a national title in his third year at Notre Dame. (Getty Images)  
Kelly could be the fifth coach to win a national title in his third year at Notre Dame. (Getty Images)  

The athletic director thought he had overscheduled.

"I was counting on [NFL prospects] Landry Jones and Matt Barkley not returning to school," said Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick, the administrator who had his program in the deep end before some thought they could swim.

The Associated Press poll voters thought so much of their chances, the Irish began the season unranked. The starting quarterback from last season was suspended to start the season. A rookie redshirt freshman took most of the snaps in August, ready to make his first start thousands of miles away in another country.

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At that point, Notre Dame really was out of sight, out of mind. A fallen power, six years removed from a BCS bowl, with little juice.

But we stand here at the end of the 15th season of that BCS with the Irish finally at the top. Again. Notre Dame is back, No. 1, playing for it all with all the national love, glory, jealousy and hate that goes with it. For the next six weeks, not a day will not pass without some angle or another published regarding the school of Touchdown Jesus' ascent into football heaven.

And you will read, watch and click online. Love 'em, hate 'em, you won't ignore 'em. Notre Dame is back, this time as an underdog.

An underdog with nationwide -- no, worldwide -- following. An underdog with a hall pass into the BCS because of that following. But an underdog that needed a reason to believe. It needed a 300-pound anchor on the defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, to outrun Navy's entire offense 77 yards with a fumble return in the opener.

"I had my eyes closed," Tuitt said.

Back across the pond, so did the entire country. The coach, somewhat embattled at the beginning of the season, had to change his style. Brian Kelly was hired three years ago for his offensive prowess. He found out rather early the 2012 Irish were going to look a lot like an SEC team. They would run and stop the run so consistently that their run to the top was derided as ugly and -- until Saturday night -- not given the proper credit.

It's fitting the Irish will play the SEC champion, especially if it's Alabama. Look at the stats. Look at the teams. It certainly won't be a clash of styles. They're 1-2 in scoring defense. They're both top 27 in rushing offense; both top 20 in turnover margin.

Oh, and there's that history thing. Alabama is eighth, Notre Dame third in all-time wins. You may have heard they've each won a bunch of national championships too. The Irish are the first in the BCS era to play for one after entering the season unranked in AP.

The spring, though, began with a bombshell. Promising freshman All-America defensive lineman Aaron Lynch transferred to South Florida. In the summer, quarterback Tommy Rees was suspended for the opener for some knucklehead actions off the field. At that point, Kelly had yet to develop a difference-making quarterback going into his third season. Kelly, the guy who had once massaged five quarterbacks through the season in winning the Big East, had a whole bunch of question marks.

Everett Golson was the Other Guy, a 2011 scout-teamer with the p-word. Potential. Even in August when Golson was named the starter -- for the moment -- ND didn't know what it had.

"Why do 80 percent of NFL teams not like their quarterbacks?" Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said at the time. "For most teams it's a constant struggle. ... Everybody is looking for next Tom Brady, and he's not always out there."

If this season has proven anything, it's that Kelly remains a quarterback maker. Golson -- the kid who had to be told "this isn't recess" by Martin because of his reckless ways -- became a playmaker. That beat the hell out of Rees, who had as many turnovers in 2011 (19) as 42 teams.

Kelly perhaps reached the peak of his career in a play-calling masterpiece on Oct. 28 against Oklahoma. Golson did not turn the ball over in handing Bob Stoops only his fifth home loss in 14 years at Oklahoma. With the game tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter, Kelly chose a deep post pattern to true freshman Chris Brown. The 50-yard completion to a player who had never caught a pass set up the game-winning touchdown in a 30-13 win. It also set up Notre Dame's season-finishing kick.

Swarbrick was sort of right about overscheduling. Jones returned as OU's quarterback, but his offense that night was stifled. Barkley was injured the week before the USC game. Luck of the Irish? Notre Dame will hear none of it. The Trojans snapped the ball nine times from inside the Notre Dame 8 on Saturday night in the fourth quarter. USC came away with a total of three yards and three points.

Swarbrick didn't overschedule. His team overachieved. While the schedule looks a tad easier upon further review, no one expected consecutive games against Michigan State, Michigan and Miami without surrendering a touchdown. No one expected opponents crossing the goal line a grand total of 10 times all season.

No one expected this kind of resurgence. While we're at it, Charlie Weis deserves a credit line too. Yep, old irascible Charlie, three jobs removed from Notre Dame. He recruited the 29 seniors who led the way. He recruited Manti Te'o, whose decision to stay for his senior season was transcendent.

Te'o became both a spiritual and physical force.

"I'll tell you one thing I'm certain of," Weis said three years ago after a crushing loss to Pittsburgh in his final season. "There are some great kids in that locker room. They're going to do big things. With or without me. Great things." Weis was right. We were wrong. Just about all of us. But isn't that what Notre Dame, at its core, is all about? Weis couldn't win enough games as head coach, but being Catholic, a Notre Dame grad and a fan, he also nurtured that intangible that sustained the program this season.

Faith.

Dodd's Power Poll
RankTeam (Previous)Comment
1Notre Dame (1)
Overall: 12-0
Conference: N/A
90-1 shot to begin the season. Unranked in AP. Breaking in a new quarterback. Reviled for playing ugly. Triple-overtime scare against Pittsburgh. There is nothing to doubt about the Irish now. They have the second-best scoring defense, the best defensive player and the biggest party for Domers in a quarter century. Something feels really, really right about college football at the moment. Regular season concluded.
2Ohio State (2)
Overall: 12-0
Conference: 8-0
Kind of weird last week how the world woke up to the fact the Bucks were undefeated. Are they worthy to be here? The 2002 national champs won half their games (seven) by a touchdown or less. These Bucks did the same, playing two fewer games. Just like Alabama in 2011, they aren't playing in a conference championship game. So, yeah, they're undefeated and they're deserving of a No. 1 vote in AP at the end if they're the only one. Season concluded.
3Texas A&M (3)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 6-2
Heisman ballots are due in eight days. Who ya got -- best defensive player on a top defensive team (Te'o) or Johnny Football? The Aggies quarterback went for 439 yards in total offense and accounted for five more touchdowns against Missouri. Regular season concluded.
4Alabama (4)
Overall: 11-1
Conference: 7-1
Western Carolina thought Auburn was listless. Yes, Auburn was that bad. In one of the most stultifying Iron Bowls in years, Bama won the SEC West and got to Atlanta with its fourth shutout of the season. The last time that happened was 1979, the last of Bear Bryant's six championships. Vs. Georgia in SEC Championship Game.
5Florida (9)
Overall: 11-1
Conference: 7-1
Gators swamped Florida State but they can't overcome a really, really bad day against Georgia for keeping them out of the SEC title game -- and possibly more. Regular season concluded.
6Georgia (8)
Overall: 11-1
Conference: 7-1
Biggest game for the Dawgs in 30 years coming up. We know what has happened to Georgia in most of its big games since then meaning there is huge pressure on Mark Richt. If the Dawgs do upset the Tide, they would tie 2003 Oklahoma for biggest loss (28 points) by a BCS title game participant. Vs. Alabama in SEC Championship Game.
7Stanford (5)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 8-1
One of the vagaries of conference realignment: The Cardinal will play UCLA for the second time in six days for the Pac-12 title. Stanford seems to be at the top of its game after a 35-17 win over the Bruins that clinched the Pac-12 North. A third consecutive BCS bowl looms. Vs. UCLA in Pac-12 Championship Game.
8Oregon (6)
Overall: 11-1
Conference: 8-1
A three-point loss to Stanford in overtime will keep the Ducks from a fourth straight Pac-10/12 title and second BCS title berth in three years. Next up? The beginning of the Chip Kelly Watch over where he will be next season. Regular season concluded.
9Kansas State (9)
Overall: 10-1
Conference: 7-1
Bye before season-ender against Texas this week. Win, and the Cats clinch their third conference title in a century. The Wildcats are all but out of the national championship chase. Notre Dame won and the winner of the SEC title game will likely get the other spot. For the second consecutive year, the Big 12 will be undone by not playing a conference championship game.
10LSU (10)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 6-2
Tigers' SEC West title hopes held out until Bama beat Auburn. Jarvis Landry at least gets whatever award there is for catch of the year. Regular season concluded.
11South Carolina (17)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 6-2
So is Clemson the real Death Valley? Who cares? Steve Spurrier became South Carolina's winningest coach and Jadeveon Clowney had 4½ sacks against the Tigers. Regular season concluded.
12Oklahoma (15)
Overall: 9-2
Conference: 7-2
It's a good thing the Sooners are in the Big 12. In the last two weeks combined, Mike Stoops' beleaguered D has given up 97 points, almost 1,300 yards and won. OU still finds itself alive for the outright conference title.
13Nebraska (17)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 7-1
The Huskers have been here before -- actually three times since 1999 -- playing in a conference championship game. All three times they have lost, so it's been a long 13 years between league titles. Different conference, different result? Vs. Wisconsin in Big Ten Championship Game.
14Clemson (12)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 7-1
A season that started with so much promise ends with the first four-game losing streak to South Carolina in 58 years. BCS bowl now a long shot. Regular season concluded.
15Florida State (11)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 7-1
Forget brain fart against NC State and blown lead at home against Florida. The season is still a success if Seminoles win the ACC. That's a stepping stone to greater things. Vs. Georgia Tech in ACC Championship Game.
16Kent State (21)
Overall: 11-1
Conference: 8-0
No. 1 in turnover margin, No. 1 in the MAC East, perhaps the No. 1 feel-good story in college football. The Golden Flashes' dream season continues. Vs. Northern Illinois in MAC Championship Game.
17Northern Illinois (22)
Overall: 11-1
Conference: 8-0
Can we please get quarterback Jordan Lynch to New York for the Heisman? In the snow at Eastern Michigan, Lynch rushed for more than 100 yards for the 10th consecutive game, an FBS record for a quarterback. Vs. Kent State in MAC Championship Game.
18Utah State (24)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 6-0
First 10-win season in 114 years. First outright conference title (WAC) in 76 seasons. Next stop: Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Regular season concluded.
19Northwestern (NR)
Overall: 9-3
Conference: 5-3
Seemingly headed for Outback Bowl berth after completing first nine-win season since 2008. Regular season concluded.
20Boise State (23)
Overall: 9-2
Conference: 6-1
Bye. At Nevada on Saturday.
21Oregon State (13)
Overall: 8-3
Conference: 6-3
With a game left against Nicholls State, Beavers have a chance to improve by six games (3-9 to 9-3).
22Penn State (NR)
Overall: 8-4
Conference: 6-2
Yes, that was Sam Friggin' Ficken kicking the winning field goal against Wisconsin to end the Nits' amazing first year of NCAA penalties. There is hope after an 8-4 season that no one expected. Season concluded.
23UCLA (14)
Overall: 9-3
Conference: 6-3
Bruins had already clinched Pac-12 South, but the loss to Stanford means a rematch in Palo Alto next week for the Pac-12 title. Rewind the game film. Vs. Stanford in Pac-12 Championship Game.
24Louisville (18)
Overall: 9-2
Conference: 4-2
Cardinals and Rutgers both lost, tainting a Thursday night Big East showdown. Way to scar the Orange Bowl, boys.
25San Jose State (NR)
Overall: 10-2
Conference: 5-1
The Spartans (10-2) completed their best season in a quarter-century with a nine-point win over Louisiana Tech. Coach Mike MacIntyre mentioned as Jeff Tedford's replacement at Cal. Regular season concluded.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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